"to Better The Conditions Of My Family"
Hayes was born on December 20, 1942 in Jacksonville, Florida, the youngest of three children in a poor family. His father, who struggled to make a living in the days of legal segregation and limited opportunity for African Americans, fought in World War II and returned in a wheelchair. The family's poverty increased, as their only source of income was his disability pension. Hayes spent much of his childhood skipping school, roaming the streets with friends, and avoiding his father's military-style discipline.
Although Hayes was interested in sports, his father warned him to forget about an athletic career. He encouraged Hayes to learn to shine shoes, stay in the neighborhood, and make connections. Although Hayes was interested in football, he was a very fast runner, and he was soon recruited by his high school track coach. Even in street shoes, he outran everyone. At Hayes's first high school meet, he entered seven events—the 100, 220, 440, and 880 yards, sprint relay, high jump, and long jump—and won them all. His friends began making money by lining up races between Hayes and
older boys, and taking bets on the results. They, and Hayes, always won.
Hayes also played football through high school, and scouts for Florida A&M in Tallahassee, saw him play and offered him a scholarship. When Hayes filled out the college application in 1960, he wrote, "I want to be a professional football player and better the conditions of my family," according to Dave Kindred in the Sporting News. And he did play football at school, under coach Jake Gaither. He was a starter at wide receiver in the 1965 College All-Star Game.
Despite his running speed, Hayes never intended to become a world-class sprinter, and knew nothing about track and field until Robert "Pete" Griffin, who coached with Gaither on the football team and who also coached track and field, encouraged him to enter the sport. According to Kindred, Hayes later said, "I went to [Florida A&M] to play football, nothing else. But after practice every day, we'd run wind sprints and I'd be beating everybody, even the upperclassmen." Coach Griffin, seeing talent, asked Hayes to run track, and Hayes initially refused because if he joined the team he would have to stay in Tallahassee on weekends, and he wanted to go home with his friends. However, Griffin kept after him and ultimately convinced him to join the track team.
Under Griffin's direction, Hayes went from competitions in Tallahassee to Los Angeles, Des Moines, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, moving up to qualify for the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.
Hayes was an unlikely sprinter. Although he was powerfully built, with small feet, long legs, and short, muscular thighs, he had such a pigeon-toed stride that he often spiked one leg with the other foot while running, and he surged heavily from side to side instead of running straight forward. However, he had phenomenal acceleration and finishing strength. Sprinters who followed him, including Britain's Linford Christie and Dwain Chambers, emulated his power and finishing kick.